Finding Family in Jewish Education: A View from the Ground

by Wren Beaulieu-Hack

We have less funding, fewer families, sagging attendance and more demands placed upon us than ever before. We are no longer responsible for merely augmenting a Jewish education whose foundations are being set at home, but we are given the task of building Jewish identity from the basement up.

And we found out that we are over budget, understaffed, and the mega-church down the street just opened a permanent bounce house and indoor play structure in the building.

This is not entirely dismal news; this is just the reality. In fact, parents are demanding and want their children to be Jewish. So, while our jobs may be more difficult, the need is there, and this is good.

So how do we teach Hebrew, t’fillah, holidays, Israel, life cycle events, and mitzvot, while inculcating mensch-like behavior and values in under four hours a week, while not conflicting with the community’s soccer schedule?

The sheer impossibility of this task is what makes it doable. But we can’t do it alone, and we can’t do it within the confines of what formerly constituted religious education.

So we build a new structure. We engage the family as an extension and counterpart of the classroom. We build alliances within our communities. We reach our children on the channels they are viewing.

We can create Jewish identities, even given our current constraints; we just need to do it differently by being creative and scrappy, and living outside the box.

There is no question that we will continue the B’nai Mitzvah journey, that Torah must remain as a focal point, that Israel needs to be embraced, and that prayers need to be learned.

But we need to focus more on how we make these subjects – instrumental to forming a solid Jewish identity – stick; how do we make them matter? We can no longer hand feed this information to rows of desks filled with upright, attentive children, eager – with pen in hand.

Perhaps most importantly, we must involve and engage the family, and put it, however it may be constructed, squarely in the middle of this new paradigm. This means more than inviting parents to performances and science fairs.

It means involving parents, siblings, and extended family members in the educational process – integrating them into the lesson plan so that the classroom travels home, and vice versa, and they become mutually supporting structures, environments and labs of Jewish education.

We must also respect the fact that kids are demanding that we provide them with relevant connections to the information they are asked to absorb; they want to experience versus “learn.” While this demand requires a paradigm shift amongst educators, it also provides us with the solution to creating a new generation of Jews who choose to live Jewishly.

If kids learn by doing Jewish, and if this is reinforced in the classroom, at home, and within the community, then they live Jewish and remain so, ensuring that they will become Jewish adults.

How do we adjust the existing synagogue religious school model to fit the children of today? Evolve, connect, consider, listen, create and throw away. It is an experiment with as many failures as successes, but a journey that opens up doors we didn’t know existed.

Our worlds are much bigger than the buildings housing our schools. Resources abound. There is an incredible Jewish community that is willing to open up and share. Often, when we share our concerns, our questions, our problems, we find commonalities and solutions.

We no longer own our ideas; we have found the value of connection and the richness of community. We must look to this larger community, including our families, to be involved in the conversations and the solutions.

There are days – many days – when pounding my head against the wall brings me relief. But, there are many days where I get to experience light bulb moments, energizing moments and beshert moments. There are moments that remind me that what we do matters. We are not merely educators in the moment. We are innovators for the future.

Wren Beaulieu-Hack is Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy, MI, and a member of SHEVET: Jewish Family Education Exchange.